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Lullaby

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Futaba Sakura is very particular about sound.

It wasn’t as bad as this, once upon a time. She could withstand the constant chatter of the kids at school when her mind was focused on her textbooks. The noise of the traffic was only loud when her mother took her into Shibuya, and at home it became background noise. Back then, the sound of the front door opening filled her with excitement; it meant her mother was home, after all.

(Your mother didn’t feel the same. All she felt was anguish, tired and angry and fed up of dealing with you, waiting for a chance for everything to end-)

Futaba loved her mother. She was a blessing; a sanctuary Futaba could go to without hesitation. Whenever she found herself overwhelmed, unable to stop shaking, her mother would hold her close and whisper gently, soft lullabies that would calm her and lull her to sleep. When the world became too loud, Futaba’s mother understood the importance of quiet.

(But that was a lie. All she wanted was for you to be quiet, to stop complaining, to let her get on with her life. She would have been happier if you had never been born.)

All the quiet in the world disappeared the moment Futaba’s mother died.

(Was murdered-)

When the car-

(Because of you-)

Futaba can still hear the crash.

(Don’t forget it; remember and repent.)

 


 

Futaba Sakura controls sound.

It helps her cope. She flinches any time a door clicks, freezing for a solid minute until she remembers that she’s not there, in that awful place on the cold floor, but in this warm house, with Sojiro, who knocks at her door but never touches the handle. Her own door does not click until she opens it.

She doesn’t open the window. The house is right by the road, hardly busy but it’s where the vans stop to make deliveries, and their engines are too loud, unless they’re muffled by triple-glazing.

As for the voices-

(Creepy child, you killed her, you’re a plague, what’s with that look, why don’t you say something, murderer, you’re the one who killed her-)

She quit school. She doesn’t leave her room. The only voice she can trust is the comforting bass of Sojiro.

As for the rest, that’s what the headphones are for. They don’t block them out, not completely, but the pressure helps.

She almost always keeps a string of sounds flowing through her headphones, carefully moderated by her computers, white noise in her eardrums, keeping them at bay.

At first, bugging Leblanc had been a way of keeping track of Sojiro, making sure he was working hard.

(Making sure he hasn’t died, because you can’t let yourself be responsible for another death.)

Now, it’s her go-to background noise during hacking, cracking, coding and all things non-media related. Whenever the music dies in her video games or the ending theme plays in her latest anime episode, she turns the dial to Leblanc, relishing in the bubbling of the coffee siphons, the quiet chatter of the occasional customer, the clinking of plates and cups. Sometimes, she’ll just listen to Sojiro’s voice, humming under his breath as he prepares the curry, only pausing to thank customers for their patronage.

It’s not quite her mother’s lullaby, but it’s close.

 


 

It’s April 9th when Futaba hears a new voice.

Late afternoon, she’s checking out some forums lazily whilst listening in on the cafe. Some old couple has been there about four hours now, chatting about politics and the news and what sort of new curtains they want in their living room. They’re regulars, but she can practically hear Sojiro sizzling at their still being here.

What she actually hears is Sojiro distracting himself with a crossword, and the background buzz of the TV giving news that she glanced at a few hours ago; there’s been a road traffic accident, casualties everywhere. She checked out as soon as they mentioned the pile up.

(Maybe they were like your mother. Looking for a way out.)

The bell above the door rings, light and pleasant. Futaba freezes up before remembering that the door is not hers, nor is it in this house. She’s safe.

Some footsteps. More chatter from the elderly. Sojiro trying to puzzle out a new crossword clue. Then-

“Oh, right.” The sound of a newspaper rustling, probably close to where her bug is, if the volume of the pages flapping is anything to be judged by. “They did say that was today.”

Futaba isn’t paying full attention - the meme she’s scrolling past elicits a snort of laughter - but she pauses when she hears these words. What was today? Some special delivery? Is the man from social services here to take her away, back to that awful place with the cold hard floor-

(Where you belong-)

The elderly couple leave, the bell ringing and the door clicking shut behind them.

“Four hours for just a single cup of joe.” Sojiro sounds tired and a little fed up but given that this couple has pulled this a few times before, it’s not a surprise to either him or Futaba. “So, you’re Ren?”

Ren? Ren who? Futaba has a pristine memory, she couldn’t forget a name if she tried, but she’s not heard a “Ren” mentioned once in Leblanc. It’s a first name too, so it can’t be a professional, right? Sojiro never calls the social workers by their given names.

That’s when she hears the voice. It’s a guy, and though his voice doesn’t dip as low as Sojiro’s it’s still warm in its depth, quiet as a breath. She almost has to strain to catch it.

“Please take care of me.”

Take care of? Is he a part-timer? Does Sojiro even need a part-timer? The cafe’s always dead, so unless Sojiro is trying to get a day off, there’s no reason-

(Maybe he’s replacing you.)

Sojiro, for his part, doesn’t sound impressed. “Uh-huh. I’m Sojiro Sakura. You’ll be in my custody over the next year.”

Custody? As in living there?

But- Why?

Why didn’t he tell her?

(He doesn’t want you anymore; he’d rather look after this stranger than you, who could blame him-)

Sojiro says a few more things, but Futaba’s not paying attention. By the time she brings her mind back, Sojiro is taking the stranger - Ren - upstairs to the attic, and she can’t hear anymore because her bugs never made it that far.

Her body feels tense, curled into a ball. There’s a stranger in Leblanc. He’s living there. She’d thought that place was safe, but if there’s someone unknown walking around in there…

(Creepy child, you’re a plague, why don’t you say something-)

The voices consume.

 


 

The stranger, as it turns out, is quiet.

Futaba doesn’t check in again until late that night, once Sojiro has come home and left her food by the door and asked her if she’s feeling okay and made it feel like maybe she is okay, for a moment. When she switches her audio input to Leblanc, she hears only the distant shuffling of steps, not a sound from a voice at all. Eventually the footsteps stop, and she guesses the attic-dweller must have gone to sleep.

She checks in again the next day, but the shop isn’t open. Even Sojiro’s voice isn’t present, so she closes the window and plans to come back to it later.

She ends up calling Sojiro when she still hasn’t heard his voice by the evening, unsure if he’s back in the cafe at all, but he’s on the way home and everything is fine.

The boy in the attic is still quiet when she checks in that night. Silent, almost.

Over time, she finds herself listening in more and more in the evenings. She brushes it off as checking up on Sojiro, but she still finds herself picking up on little things, adding them to her mental database of information on this stranger - on Ren Amamiya.

It wasn’t difficult to pull up his full name and find all his personal info online. She didn’t think he’d have a criminal record, that’s for sure.

Hard to imagine malice from someone so quiet.

(You weren’t quiet, after all. Maybe if you were, she'd be-)

Futaba hears his voice a few more times, always soft-spoken, always polite, always reserved. The lack of words only makes his answers more elusive. He plays his hand close to his chest, clearly, if his criminal record is legit.

A few days after she first hears his voice, he starts talking more. The odd thing is, though, that it’s always late at night, when she knows for a fact Sojiro is downstairs dozing in front of the TV and Ren is the only one in Leblanc. At first, she thinks he’s probably on the phone, talking to some friend from school or wherever he came from.

Then she hears the meowing.

Futaba is pretty sure the criminal record isn’t legit. What sort of criminal comes home and talks to his cat at night?

The weirdest thing is that it almost sounds like he’s having a full conversation with it, to the point where half of the things he’s saying don’t make sense and she can only assume she’s missing some context. That being said, the kitty is far chattier than Ren, so most of his responses are brief and sparse. A lot of the time, his conversations with his cat quickly become muffled as they go upstairs, but she can still hear the meowing in the distance, her bug picking up on that but not on any responses Ren might make.

So Sojiro has taken in some kid who’s lonely enough to talk to his cat at night, and who has a criminal record that seems falser by the minute. Okay. Totally legit.

She doesn’t check in as often after the first few weeks, once Ren starts coming home later and her mind becomes occupied more with the new episodes of the anime she’d been looking forward to most this season, or the MMO raids that have just started up and will only run for a limited time. Her check-ins grow farther apart, from days to weeks without a tap of the bug. By the time summer rolls around, she’s almost forgotten about Sojiro’s “part-timer.”

(What would he think, if he knew you were spying on him? He wouldn’t trust you - not that he does now. He doesn’t care about you at all. No one does.

Creepy child.)

It had been the heat of summer when her mother-

(Murderer.)

She curls in on herself, hands over her headphones, trying to block out the voices that keep coming in.

(You’re the one who killed her.)

“Stop,” she whispers through rushed breaths.

(You killed her.)

A notification sound pops up on her computer, and she glances up through squinted eyes. It’s an email - probably spam - but it’s right beside the icon that takes her to her sound database.

It’s the icon that takes her to Leblanc.

Her hand hovers over the mouse, shaking violently-

(Why don’t you SAY SOMETHING-)

She clicks.

The audio buzzes into life. Leblanc is almost silent at this time of night - it’s way past closing, after all - but there’s a voice, soft as a breath.

“It’ll be alright.”

Futaba blinks, frozen.

The faint sizzling of a coffee siphon. Some meowing. A chuckle that sends a chill down her spine.

“I know, I know. But we can’t just sit around and do nothing.”

There’s something about that voice - it sounds like the smell of coffee every morning, when she creeps downstairs after Sojiro’s gone out; warm, smooth, but also strong. Her hand stops shaking.

A few more cute kitty noises. The pouring of a drink. And then-

“We’ve already sent the calling card, right? There’s no turning back. We take Kaneshiro’s heart tomorrow.”

Futaba’s brain speeds to a halt.

Calling card. Taking hearts. A name - Kaneshiro?

She’s heard about the calling cards - of course she has. She checks the news, or overhears it on Leblanc’s TV. There’s no way of avoiding the press going on about it; a rogue group, proclaiming to steal hearts through fancy calling cards.

The Phantom Thieves.

There’s no way Ren - soft-spoken, has conversations with his cat, speaks kindly to Sojiro and seems to mind his own business from what she can tell-

He’s not a Phantom Thief. Right?

…But if he is…

She flips her audio over to some catchy anime music, trying to drown out her thoughts.

She doesn’t realise the voices have already gone quiet.

 


 

The next day, a calling card is all over Shibuya, and consequently, the news.

It’s addressed to a Junya Kaneshiro.

Futaba’s heart is in her throat.

 


 

A few anxious days pass before she gets confirmation.

The TV blares in the background of Leblanc. “Junya Kaneshiro, leader of a crime ring in Shibuya, has been taken into custody following a confession of his crimes. This comes only days after a calling card from the so-called Phantom Thieves appeared all over Shibuya-”

But Futaba’s not listening anymore.

They’d sent the calling card. They were going to take Kaneshiro’s heart the next day.

Ren really is a Phantom Thief.

A Phantom Thief lives in Leblanc.

If that is true, then she might be able to-

(No, it won’t work, you’re going to die here-)

She does a double check, and a triple check, but all of the facts add up. She has Ren’s information, can hack his phone in a few seconds.

He could change her heart.

Futaba hasn’t jumped for joy in years. Her heart pounds in her chest from the effort, but she grins all the same.

He could change her heart.

 


 

(No. You’re going to die here. This is your tomb.)

 


 

She makes an effort to listen in on Leblanc more often, from then on. She taps into Ren’s phone, reads his messages (ordering from a maid service, hm?), follows his personal life. Waits for an opportunity.

“The global hacktivist group Medjed has released a statement-”

The TV catches her attention.

This might be her chance.

 


 

(Creepy child you killed her you’re a plague what’s with that look why don’t you say something murderer you’re the one who killed her-

Do you really think that’s true?

Futaba Sakura. Remember.

I am thou.

Thou art I.)

 


 

Futaba Sakura is very particular about sound.

She wears her headphones all the time, no matter whether she’s alone or with company, indoors or out. It’s partially habit, and partially sound proofing. With Ryuji yelling all the time, she’s not sure she could take it without them.

Her new friends are loud. Weird and colourful and loud, but they saved her. All of them.

Leblanc is a safe place, where the scent of coffee mixes with the sizzling siphons and the low chatter and the buzz of the TV and Sojiro’s soft humming and Ren.

Ren’s voice is deep, smooth, warm, almost a breath. When the two of them are alone together, chatting in her room or playing games in his, his voice washes over her and all her muscles relax.

He’s her key item, her guide to the outside world, her cheerleader and eternal support. He pushes her to try new things but doesn’t scold her when she shies away. In the swarming crowds and endless chatter of the city, Ren is her shield.

When the world outside is too loud and all Futaba wants is to crawl back into her futon and return to being a shut-in, Ren understands the importance of quiet.

So it’s only natural that when she meets up with him in his room one day in November, his quiet smile gives her the strength to take off her headphones and hear his voice with no barriers.

It’s a whisper, a soft lullaby that calms her heart and mind.

“I love you,” Ren says.

Her worries are lulled to sleep.